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Hannah Arendt: her life, politics and philosophy

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Hannah Arendt (image credit)

I was introduced to Hanna Arendt in two of my Ph.D. courses: One on Genocide and another on Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. Arendt’s ideas on violence and power influenced my thinking and instilled in me the desire to know more about her life and contributions to social sciences. In this short post, I talk about her early life, university days, experiences as a Jew in Germany and her intellectual interests. It is by no means an exhaustive look at one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, and I aim to write more on her specific contributions in separate posts.

Hannah Arendt was a German-American political theorist, famously known for her work on the theory of modernity, violence, human nature and power among other subjects. She wrote several books such as Crises of the Republic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem among others. The Eichmann in Jerusalem became controversial among Jews because they believed that Arendt had accused the Jewish people of failing to resist persecution and that her tone in some passages of the book was ironic and offensive. Apparently, Arendt had laughed at Eichmann’s foolishness while reading the 3600 pages transcript of police hearing about the man.

To the first criticism, Arendt responded that nowhere in the book she accused the Jews of such a failing, and dismissed it as “a malignant lie and propaganda.” She claimed that it was someone else who did it: Mr. Haussner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. To the latter criticism, Arendt’s response was that although she can understand to some extent that people took it amiss, their expectations that one can write about such things in a “tone filled with pathos” are not realistic. She said, “I know one thing: I would probably still laugh three minutes before certain death.” The criticism of the tone was an objection against her personally, and she couldn’t help that, she said.

Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, in Linden-Limmer, Germany. From an early age, she found herself interested in the works of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. At age fourteen, she knew she wanted to study philosophy and was trained in philosophy, theology and Greek in four different German universities until her Ph.D. Arendt was very fond of Greek and German poetry. She claimed later in her life that she still remembered many poems in German. Those poems somehow remained in the back of her head, she said.

German language, which was her mother tongue, was the one thing she kept from her past in Germany and Europe, as with time she grew distant from German politics and the people. Arendt claimed that Karl Theodor Jaspers, the German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, who was her Ph.D. advisor, had a formative influence on her ideas and philosophy of life. Jasper’s role was one of a guardian and a mentor in educating Arendt. His mentorship was all the more important to Arendt especially since she had lost her father at a young age. She did not talk about her identity, grades or ambitions at home because her family did not entertain such conversations.

As a child, Arendt experienced anti-semitism in the early decades of the twentieth century, but she knew how to guard herself against such experiences. At home, they did not talk about their identity as Jews up until the early 1930s when the rise of the Nazis began to change the political milieu rapidly, culminating in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as the German Chancellor in 1934. For Arendt, even that was not shocking, as she knew that the Nazis had begun to appear in German politics four years before Hitler’s rise to power.

The shocking experience for Arendt was when friends began to behave like enemies. She said it is not surprising when your enemies come after you because it is natural to have enemies, but it is when your friends leave you in difficult times. Many German intellectuals admired the Nazis, at least for some time. Some fell in their own trap, she recalled. Their ideas, she argued, led them to take the pro-Nazi positions. That is also why she felt more estranged from intellectuals for a while, at least.

Arendt left Germany in 1933 and crossed illegally into France where she lived for a while, working for a Jewish organization. After WWII, she went to the United States where she taught as a professor at several universities, including the University of Chicago form 1963 to 1967. Some refer to her as a philosopher and a political theorist. It is true that she was interested in philosophy in the beginning and made contributions to the field but later in her career, she did not define herself as a philosopher. She disavowed that label and believed she was a political theorist. For her, the distinction between philosophy and politics was rather clear:

There is a tension between politics and philosophy i.e. between the man as a thinking being and the man as an acting being. This tension exists in the nature of the subject. There is a tension that does not exist in natural philosophy. Just like everyone else, (a) philosopher can be objective with regard to nature. When he says what he thinks, he speaks for all mankind. But he can’t be neutral with regard to politics. Not since Plato, I understand. There is a kind of enmity against politics in most philosophers, with few exceptions such as Kant. I want to look at politics with an eye unclouded by philosophy.

This quote makes the difference between a political theorist and a philosopher clear. However, one wonders how would a political philosopher respond to such difference, as the very title is a combination of politics and philosophy. Are politics and philosophy, in Arendt’s understanding, like oil and water that don’t mix, and therefore have distinct functions in understanding the human condition or are there questions that require the use of both politics and philosophy for answers. Arendt may be right if a political philosopher can be objective with human behavior regardless of time and space, but can he or she be?

What if one political philosopher supports a liberal political order and another espouses a regressive political system? With these positions, they would not just be thinking beings but acting political beings with specific goals and agendas in the world. Politics, to add to Arendt’s meaning of the term, in its broadest sense is focused on the study of human behavior with specific regard to relations of power between human beings. Philosophy, as Plato used to say, is wonderment. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said,

Reflections on a philosophical problem put myself and the world in a light that would otherwise escape me. Through philosophical reflection, I understand why I am in this world and how must be in the world.

There might be some overlap, even insignificant, just like in the oil and water analogy, between the search for an ideal self and world through wonderment and the search and desire for the same ideal, special man and world through the empirical science of politics. I am not sure about the answer but this is a question I would like to explore further in my research. The point I should get back to is that although Arendt had studied and contributed to philosophy, she identified herself as a political theorist.

Moreover, Arendt is known, among other significant contributions, for her coinage of the phrase “the banality of evil.” She used this in reference to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official, who was tried in an Israeli court for his crimes against the German Jews during the Holocaust, also known as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Eichmann denied any responsibility for his actions, as he claimed he had no power over his will because he was following the orders of his superiors and had no motives for killing, but the irony is that he was part of the machinery of death and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. In her final speech of the trial of Eichmann that she gave before a group of students, Arendt said,

This typical Nazi plea makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions, without wicked hearts or demonic wills, by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the “banality of evil”.

In the same speech, Arendt, in response to a student’s question about her use of the term “crimes against humanity” instead of crimes against the Jewish people, says that because the Jews are humans and a crime against them is a crime against humanity. She says that she was not defending Eichmann but she tried to reconcile his “shocking mediocrity” with his “staggering deeds. She maintains that trying to understand is not the same as forgiving. She says,

I see it as my responsibility to understand, it is the responsibility of anyone who dares to put pen to paper on the subject. Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking: “to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself.” In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality: that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think creates the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which one had never seen before.

She concludes the speech with these lines,

The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right or wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments, when the chips are down.

Hannah Arendt died on December 4, 1975, in Upper West Side, New York, but her legacy will continue to enlighten the world for times to come.



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